Fear vs. Fact

New Hampshire Trans Rights Bill in Danger

A New Hampshire bill that would ban discrimination based on gender identity might be derailed by a campaign targeting legislators with hundreds of messages.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

New Hampshire’s progress on LGBT rights has lagged behind some of its northeastern neighbors.

History might repeat itself in 2017 with New Hampshire’s HB 478, a bill with bipartisan sponsors that would ban discrimination based on gender identity but that is now “poised to stall,” the Concord Monitor reported, after an anti-transgender email campaign targeted legislators with hundreds of messages.

“The number of people who have written stating that this bill essentially offers their children up to sexual predators is outrunning by five to one the number of emails stating that it’s time to end the daily beatings of transgendered people,” Republican representative Jess Edwards, who initially backed the bill, wrote in a letter to the other members of the state House of Representatives.

“The passionate are yelling past each other with worst-case scenarios. I don’t think this is an environment in which the legislature should pick a side.”

New Hampshire is surrounded on all sides by states that have already passed similar legislation protecting transgender residents: Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine.

HB 478 as the Monitor reported, is also supported by the very group that has the most experience dealing with actual sexual predators: the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which reminded the state legislature in a statement that there are already “strong state laws against predatory or invasive behavior in restrooms and elsewhere.”

But HB 478’s prospects have been thrown up in the air and the House speaker, as the Monitor reported, wants the bill tabled.

Over the past several days, the socially conservative New Hampshire organization Cornerstone has been directing supporters to sign a petition. That website also has a form letter to send to state representatives claiming that it “puts the safety of women and children at risk by granting unquestioned access to what are currently private, safe spaces like bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms.”

As The Daily Beast and other news outlets have repeatedly reported: this is a myth. The many states and municipalities with anti-discrimination laws covering transgender people have seen no uptick in sexual assault related to the protective legislation. But myths that are repeated loudly—and by enough people—can have consequences.

“We know from the 18 states and over 200 cities that have had these laws—in some instances, for more than four decades—that the facts that are so clearly in our favor can sometimes still be drowned out by fears that have no basis in fact,” Kasey Suffredini, the director of Freedom For All American’s Transgender Freedom Project, told The Daily Beast. “I think that is a case in point for why these non-discrimination protections are so badly needed.”

Suffredini suspects that many of the emails opposing HB 478 are coming from “out of state.” He also said that lawmakers have told Freedom For All Americans that the supportive messages they’ve received are “very clearly from constituents and are largely personally written” while the messages opposing the measure “tend to be form letters, and it’s not always clear that they’re constituents.” Democrats and Republican representatives told the New Hampshire Union Leader that they’re receiving out-of-state messages on both sides of the issue.

(Rep. Edwards also told the Union Leader that “only about five or six” of the 800 emails he has received are “from actual constituents.”)

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Theoretically, the only people who should use the biologymattersnh.com form letter are New Hampshire residents because the bottom paragraph reads: “I am a proud Granite Stater.” But it’s unclear how these letters are delivered and whether out-of-state signatories are being filtered out.

Cornerstone—which created the website, according to LifeSiteNews—did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment about the site.

In response to questions about the authenticity and reliability of the anti-HB 478 emails he referenced in his message to the House, Rep. Edwards—who originally numbered among the bill’s Republican supporters in a 15-2 committee vote—told The Daily Beast, “I believe my role is to be responsive to the public and that the best way to do that is to gather the facts and test everyone’s assumptions. I’m comfortable in the belief that I’ve done that in preparation for this week’s vote.”

Edwards disputed the idea that there should be controversy around the bill, pointing to the state human rights commission’s history of hearing a small handful of cases about transgender discrimination.

“It’s not nearly as scandal-worthy as it gets painted,” he said.

The protections provided by HB 478, however, would be far more comprehensive and proactive—a fact implicitly recognized by the bill’s more strident opponents, like Republican Representative J.R. Hoell, who claimed in a Sunday Monitor op-ed that the bill would “eliminate the right to privacy for women and children in New Hampshire’s public bathrooms and other formerly private spaces.”

(In his op-ed, Hoell cited the American College of Pediatricians to argue that “transgenderism” can be a form of “child abuse.” As The Daily Beast has reported, the American College of Pediatricians is a tiny organization, with a few hundred members at last count, that has been labeled an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The leading organization for U.S. pediatricians is the 64,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports transgender youth. A letter to the editor published on Tuesday pointed out Hoell’s shaky citations.)

If HB 478 fails due to fear and misinformation, it wouldn’t be the first time that New Hampshire has trailed its immediate neighbors in a region that has historically been on the cutting edge of LGBT equality.

Back in 1998, sexual orientation was added to New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination law—before wide swaths of the country but still after Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island (PDF). The state legalized same-sex marriage in 2009—but only after Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine did the same. (To be fair, Maine overturned same-sex marriage rights later in 2009.) And in 2016, New Hampshire almost banned conversion therapy for LGBT minors, only for the legislation to get lost in a May deadlock between the House and the Senate. That same month, Vermont became the fifth state in the country to ban conversion therapy. (The New Hampshire Senate is trying again to ban conversion therapy this year.)

Part of the current challenge, according to Suffredini, is the unusually large 400-seat size of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the “diffuse” nature of the state’s rural population. So although he is heartened by vocal local supporters of HB 478—including the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association—Suffredini cannot predict what will happen during the HB 478 vote, expected to occur on March 8 or 9.

“Who knows? On one hand, one of the bill’s co-sponsors is actually the Republican majority leadership of the Senate [Jeb Bradley],” he told The Daily Beast. “But the House in New Hampshire is just a very challenging body for people to organize in.

“Many House representatives don’t even know each other,” he added.

If the bill fails, New Hampshire will remain a holdout in the region when it comes to transgender protections. In February 2017, the LGBT research organization Movement Advancement Project analyzed the strength of each state’s gender identity policies, color coding them green for “high” and “medium” equality, orange for “low” equality, and red for “negative” equality.

The only orange spot northeast of D.C.? New Hampshire.